Crop Tech Corner

Gene Editing Waits in the Wings

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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Regulatory agencies around the world are still working to decide how to classify and regulate new gene editing techniques that could play a big role in future crop breeding. (DTN photo by Nick Scalise)

ST. LOUIS (DTN) -- This bi-monthly column condenses the latest news in the field of crop technology, research and products.

GMO OR NO?

A new gene-editing technique that could play a large role in crop breeding is occupying a strange gray area of genetics until regulatory agencies decide whether it requires the same scrutiny as genetically engineered organisms. The pendulum swung a little farther to one side in November when the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation concluded that the technique should be classified and regulated as a GMO by the EU.

The technique is called CRISPR-Cas9 and has been compared to the cut-and-paste function of a word processor by scientists. It allows breeders to cut out parts of DNA and splice the remaining bits back together -- thus altering the genome without adding any new genes, which distinguishes it from traditional genetic engineering to date. Moreover, the CRISPR system is actually a naturally occurring process that scientists are now directing for their own uses, further blurring the line between genetic engineering and traditional breeding. Of all the emerging gene editing techniques, the CRISPR technique is the most inexpensive, efficient and simple, and scientists have already experimented with its use in both animal and plant genomes.

USDA is examining gene editing techniques, but has not concluded whether they fall under the agency's regulatory authority yet. A decision will probably be required soon; already, scientists have found agricultural applications for these new genetic tools. For example, in 2014, scientists from China used multiple gene-editing techniques, including CRISPR, to snip out parts of the wheat genome that suppressed the plants' defenses against powdery mildew. The resulting plants showed an inheritable resistance to the disease.

You can find the German regulatory decision on CRISPR here: http://1.usa.gov/…, and read more about gene editing techniques and their breeding applications here: http://1.usa.gov/…. For more information about the Chinese wheat study, see the abstract here: http://1.usa.gov/….

MILLIONS FOR WHEAT

USDA's National Institute of Food and Agricultural (FIFA) has made $3.4 million available for wheat research projects, according to a government press release. The money will be parceled out by a new program called the International Wheat Yield Partnership, which aims to improve wheat varieties globally, with a special focus on increased yield. The agency will supply an additional $12 million through the IWYP between 2017 and 2019, for a total funding of $15.4 million.

In its request for applications, FIFA said it is looking for "breakthroughs for cereal breeding using new technologies and also discoveries that lead to significantly greater grain size, grain set and grain filling duration following embryo formation, in diverse environments, without compromising grain protein concentration in Triticeae species."

You can read more about the available funding and IWYP here: http://1.usa.gov/….

INDIANA TAKES A BIGGER LOOK AT CORN AND BEANS

The Indiana Soybean Alliance and the Indiana Corn Marketing Council are both providing $1 million each to equip Purdue University's new automated plant phenotyping facility. According to a university news release, both organizations will also put another $1 million into endowments to continue phenotyping research for both corn and soybeans indefinitely. Researchers at the facility will collect data on corn and soybean plants, from the depths of their roots to the top of each plant and then use them to quickly identify the best plants and the best production practices for Indiana farmers. The phenotyping facility is slated to open in spring 2016 in West Lafayette, Indiana.

You can read find the Purdue press release on the new facility here: http://bit.ly/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

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Emily Unglesbee